In recent years, a slew of books and movies with dramatically different subject matter have all relied on the same narrative device: the author as guinea pig. Whether in Julie and Julia or Supersize Me, the formula is the same: An author/protagonist takes on a herculean task—e.g., to cook every recipe from Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking in one year or to eat only McDonald’s food for a month—and chronicles the experience. Readers get an up close view of the triumphs, tribulations, and lessons learned along the way. Personal (and sometimes bodily) growth is usually essential to the story.
Now this formula has found its way into the field of positive psychology with two recently published books: 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life (DeCapo Press, 2009, 226 pages), by Cami Walker, and The Happiness Project (Harper Collins, 2009, 301 pages), by Gretchen Rubin. Both books demonstrate how the dogged pursuit of self-improvement can change your life. But unlike the more radical pursuits of, say, Julie Powell in Julie and Julia or Morgan Spurlock in Supersize Me, Walker and Rubin take on tasks that can be more easily incorporated into the average reader’s daily routine.
Walker’s book begins shortly after she has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and is fighting pain, fatigue, and depression. Her life is in a downward spiral until she takes unusual advice from a friend: to give away 29 gifts in 29 days. Twenty-nine Gifts is the candid and inspiring account of how generosity helped her cope more effectively with her illness.
Walker’s gifts are small and spontaneous. She cheers up a friend with a phone call, gives a few flowers to a stranger, and brings her husband a piece of chocolate cake. Yet these simple, deliberate acts of kindness bring her a sense of joy, connection, and self-confidence as she struggles to live with her health limitations. She also discovers that she has more physical energy, patience, and purpose in life afterward.
Walker’s experience corroborates recent research showing that giving to others can boost one’s happiness and well-being. Stephen Post covers this science of altruism in his book Why Good Things Happen to Good People, as does Sonja Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness. Walker seems unaware of this research and the explanation it could offer for her experiences; instead, she writes of her own positive outcomes as if they occurred by magic. Still her enthusiasm is contagious; she has even set up a website to encourage others to follow suit.
In contrast, Rubin’s book is grounded in research, but it is somewhat less compelling. Confessing to a great marriage, wonderful kids, and a good job, her goal is simply to become happier and more grateful. She decides to work on changing one aspect of her life each month for a year, following a recipe for self-improvement culled from the works of happiness researchers and her own observations.
Rubin is more methodical than Walker, but what saves the book from being a tedious laundry list of happiness tips is her inventiveness and determination: She cleans out her closets to free up energy, eliminates gossip from her life to be a better friend, and meditates on zen koans to increase her attention span. The book contains a wealth of ideas on how to increase happiness, and Rubin’s personal investment in the research nicely humanizes what would otherwise be a cookbook approach.
Indeed, both books benefit from reading more like strong personal narratives than self-help books; it helps that both authors are entertaining without being preachy. But for those already familiar with the relevant research, they don’t have a lot of new information—neither book offers much more than Lyubomirsky’s or Post’s. Still, for some readers this format should make the science—and the emphasis on altruism and happiness—easier to digest.